Thailand Jeep Trip – Part 1: Ko Tao to Chang Mai

With our goal to abandon the tourist track, Fabien and I rented a Jeep in Chang Mai. It may have been the best decision of the entire trip. I never realized how much I like to drive and the freedom that comes from being behind the wheel. In Ko Tao, we considered buying a scooter with an aluminum-rigged sidecar, a vehicle used by many delivery persons. After investigating the purchase, however, we learned that though it’s rarely prosecuted, the scooters are illegal. Renting an open-top Jeep seemed like the best option. I called a bunch of places all over southern Thailand before finding that Chang Mai would be the best place to rent. We took an overnight sleeper train from Chumphon to Bangkok, dealt with a one hour layover, and then departed for Chang Mai. I liked Chang Mai. Though it happens to be a bigger city, it’s much more laid back and easier to explore than Bangkok. Fabien and I got up early that day, did our research and ended up renting a Suzuki Caribbean. It’s sort of like the clown car version of a Jeep Wrangler. There were no open top small SUVs in all of Chang Mai. Let me stop and discuss how ridiculous Fabien is for a moment. For starters, he has red hair; that should say a lot from the get go. He is also the lead singer and guitarist in a funk band called Iggy Wiggy and the Ugly Fat Chicks. In the matter of musical tastes, we couldn’t have been more compatible. His favorite band in the entire world is P-Funk. Mine, too.

We resolved that whatever kind of car we rented should be set up to accommodate an MP3 player. We rented our small SUV from Chang Mai’s Journey car rentals with two requirements—one, that we have the most inclusive insurance, as we were likely to get into an accident and two, that they would drive us to the outskirts of the city before I had to drive.

They honored the first condition but ignored the second; we were left with our new car on the side of a major highway. It was at this point that Fabien decided to inform me that in the Netherlands, he had neither a driver’s license nor a car. Fabien was unprepared to drive on the left side of the road using a stick shift, and I was totally disoriented from attempting to drive a vehicle that appeared to be a mirror image of any car I’d ever driven. Our driver began to hitchhike back to the city, leaving us in a swarm of rush hour traffic. I tried to make the case to Fabien that he was better equipped to drive since I had no experience with driving on the left side of the road.

I may have won the battle but lost the war, because I was still the only one who could drive. So I did what I had to do. I started the car, adjusted the mirrors, took a few deep breaths, put the car into gear, pulled out onto the highway, and promptly stalled out in the middle of gridlocked traffic. As calmly as I could manage, I restarted the car, put it into gear, moved about five feet and then stalled out again. This was the inauspicious beginning to the most challenging day of driving I have ever experienced.

We set out for Pai, a small town on the infamous Mae Hong Son loop, a road revered by motorcyclists worldwide. They come to ride its treacherous twists and turns. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those bikers and I was left to drive that road for the next week. The four hours it took for us to make it to Pai were harrowing. We were driving in the dark with crazy truck drivers passing and honking.

Though totally terrifying, it was also one of the most spectacular drives I have ever taken. We stopped at a gorgeous waterfall and took some amazing pictures. By the end of the trek, I was actually pretty comfortable driving the Suzuki and I really liked it.

Most importantly, we succeeded in getting off the tour bus and finding the opportunity to create our own destiny.